Egypt in Education in Yugoslavia

Vera Vasiljevic

This paper deals with those forms of education whose conceptual framework is developed, evaluated, and carried out by specialists in their respective fields, whether supported by the state or not. Since publications and the media, especially the Net, only partly correspond to the criteria adopted here, they are not included. This does not imply that their role is underestimated in the educational process or rather - avoiding an otherwise necessary differentiation based on qualitative (and other) differences - in gaining information on the subject of ancient Egypt. However, studying them involves a number of issues lying far beyond the scope of the subject chosen for this occasion.1

Ancient Egypt and history teaching: elementary and secondary schools

Lessons on ancient Egypt form a part of the history program for the 5th grade of elementary (11-year-old pupils) schools and 1st grade of secondary schools (15-year-old pupils). A thorough analysis of the representation of ancient Egypt in textbooks has still to be made. However, already, preliminary examination reveals several problems. Two of them must be stressed here. One is of a general nature and concerns the method of history-teaching; the other is, focusing on Egypt, the choice of topics and the quality of the information.

The teaching method is traditional, based on lectures. The information given in textbooks is presented as fact, and interpretations are often disguised as data. Statements such as ‘the opinions of specialists differ on …’. or ‘at present there is insufficient data on…’ are completely lacking. The questions listed at the end of the texts show that their basic aim is to check the quantity of the information gained. No data that could be the basis for a discussion on a topic are included. The pupils are expected to memorise the information given, but are not encouraged towards critical thinking. It must be stressed that the teaching method is the same for both the textbooks for elementary school and those aimed at teenagers.

The choice of topics and the quality of the information on ancient Egypt can be best judged by some examples. The subject of this analysis were two textbooks for elementary and two for secondary schools. Writing, publishing, and using the books at schools were initiated and approved by the Ministry for Education of the Republic Serbia.

The books for the 5th grade of elementary school, written by different authors, were printed in 1992 and in 1999 (here: I-A and I-B)2. Chronology: The only absolute date in I-A is 3200 B.C. for the unification, but a simple table giving the beginnings and ends of cultures of the Orient is supplied. I-B mentions only the year 525 B.C., as the end of the Egyptian state, and any kind of chronological table is lacking - not only for Egypt, but also for Greece, Rome, or a general one for ancient history, which is the main subject of history for the 5th grade. Both textbooks treat the following topics: (a) geography, (b) society and state, and (c) culture. The importance of the Nile inundation is pointed out, as well as of artificial irrigation, and its maintainance as being the decisive factor in the organisation of the state. The structure of society is depicted (in words and through illustrations) as pyramidal. Although both texts say that peasants are the most numerous, the accompanying illustrations suggest that slaves form an even bigger part of Egyptian society. In I-A, the punishments for disobedience are also listed: beating until blood is drawn, the pulling out of tongues, the gouging out of eyes, and the cutting-off of ears. Common both to I-A and I-B is the statement that peasants and slaves rebelled from time to time, but their revolts were cruelly subdued. The explanation of religion in I-B states that Egyptians worshipped animals and natural forces. The same textbook depicts the tombs and tomb inventory of pharaohs and rich people, adding that on the other hand commoners were either cremated or laid in simply-dug graves. The explanation of the pyramids leaves the impression that this was the only type of royal tomb architecture. I-A states that priests with their preaching served the pharaohs in the same way as the army did, and, because of that, the pharaohs built the temples and donated to them land, cattle, and slaves. According both to I-A and I-B, the hieroglyphic script was pictorial, and the accompanying illustrations (identical in both editions) explain some of the signs accordingly, i.e. without a word on their phonetic value. So for the sign Gardiner G 40 the meaning is given as only: ‘bird flying’. But the authors of textbooks read A 27 (man hastening with one arm raised) as: ‘heart (is) beating’.

The history textbook for the 1st grade of grammar schools (II-A)3 (history till XII century A.D.), besides repeating the contents of the lessons on Egypt for elementary schools, adds also some new elements. So the pupils learn that Egyptian history begins with the Old Kingdom about 3200 B.C. The end of the Old Kingdom, about 2400 B.C., is at the same time the beginning of the Middle Kingdom; the New Kingdom ends with the Assyrian invasion in 671 B.C. The stress is laid on the absolute power of the pharaoh, described, inter alia, as the power of the king to take the property or life of his subjects whenever he wanted to. ‘The main characteristics of the society and states of the ancient Orient’ is the subtitle of the text treating (all previously mentioned?)4 states as one entity. The key-words are ‘eastern despotism’, absolute power, slaveholding, exploitation, plundering (also robbing of the subjects through taxation). Without any reference to ‘where’, ‘when’ or the frequency of the events, the same section refers to social clashes between the ruling and lowest classes, sometimes amounting to real rebellions. I quote the following text: ‘Being under the burden of poverty, ignorance and superstitions, the poor were not capable of organizing the struggle for the improvement of their position. The poorly organized slave- and peasant-rebellions were cruelly subdued by slaveholders and the previous state of affairs was re-established.’5 Under the subtitle ‘Religion and culture of the Ancient Orient’, the role of the priests is depicted in the following way: ‘In the name of religion, priests justified the social differences, explaining them as the will of the gods. Priests strove to create in the people the feeling of being powerless and to accustom them to submissiveness, and for those reasons they supported superstition. Closely connected with it is the development of the belief in an afterlife…The promise of paradise was meant to prevent the poor and those deprived of all rights from struggling for a better life’.6

In technical schools, the textbook for the 1st grade, beginning with prehistory, ends with the mid XIX century (II-B).7 The information concerning Egypt, scattered through the section ‘Antiquity’, is much the same as that in the books previously mentioned. The statements are mainly of a general nature, referring to climate and the irrigation of the land, but predominantly to the social structure (stressing slaves, peasants, exploitation, social revolts, etc.). Here the end of the New Kingdom is set in the year 525 B.C.

A thorough analysis of the representation of Egypt in the history textbooks used in Serbian schools has yet to be made. Many of the conclusions would probably be identical to those reached in an analysis of German schoolbooks over twenty years ago.8 The characterisation as ‘false’, ‘outdated’, ‘contradictory’, ‘unclear’, and similar would certainly be used. Some would count the pluses, and stress the presence of facts, and of generally accepted opinions. Even so, at these educational levels, the pupils are not to be expected to be able to distinguish easily between the validity of one part of a text from that of another, especially when the teaching methods and reading material do not allow it.

If the subject of this paper were not education, some of the above-mentioned examples could actually be seen as amusing. But, bearing in mind the experience Yugoslavia has had over the last decade, and the place of history in education and the role of history teaching in the development of civil society, there are good reasons to take the trouble to analyse the information and ideas the schoolbooks are promoting. Some studies concerning the presentation of national history and closely connected issues have already been conducted in Serbia,9 and we can hope that future ones will study the treatment of other periods and regions in schoolbooks. Beside the quality of information from the standpoint of modern historical research, there should also be an examination of to what extent does history teaching encourage and educate the young generation for critical thinking, i.e. prepare it for an unbiased attitude towards national history? Undoubtedly, this is a task for an interdisciplinary research team, not for a single specialist. Taking ancient Egypt as an example, my aim is just to point to some of the reasons why such research should deal with ancient cultures.

Comments on the sources and validity of the examples singled out in this paper have been omitted. It is the way in which social and religious issues are treated that I find most significant. I would like to draw attention to the questions of the motives of the authors (and of the authorities in the Ministry of Education deciding on school programs) in including specific interpretations in the textbooks; the prominence the interpretations are given; and the consequences such representations of a society bear in creating an image not only of past, but also of contemporary society.

I state that ancient Egypt is not a part of historical thought in schools. The real issues are not those of the political or cultural, nor even those of the social history of the country. The picture is a static one, lacking any hint of changes possibly perceptible over time. Most data ‘float’ in time, since they are represented as if valid for any part of Egyptian history. The fact that Menes, the unification of Egypt, pyramids, the Great Sphinx, tomb decoration, the hieroglyphic script, and several gods are named is insufficient for an account of political and cultural history, because the bare listing of facts does not amount to history. The pupils cannot gain any coherent picture of any of the topics, even less of the whole. The textbooks lay stress on the social structure of Egypt, described in terms of social classes, without any information on the organisation of the society: for example, on the origins and the function of the administration. Instead of this, the idea of society structured as a pyramid is imposed verbally and visually, suggesting that the heavy burden of the state lay upon the mercilessly exploited lowest classes. Although the textbooks state that the number of slaves in Egypt was not high, the subject of slavery has the most prominent place in all the texts on Egypt: the words ‘slave’, ‘slavery (-based state)’, ‘slave-holders’ occur so frequently that they surpass the number of events, persons, gods, and monuments mentioned, added together.10 The choice of questions accompanying the texts confirms that this topic is considered the most important. Further, the conclusions on the role of religion in Egypt that can be drawn from the textbooks are that religion was consciously exploited, and superstition induced by the ruling part of the society as means of maintaining their position. Pupils may consequently conlude that pharaohs and priests did not share the same beliefs! Such a picture, whether used in speaking specifically of Egypt, or in depicting the characteristics of the notion of ‘oriental despotism’ in general, serves to promote a certain ideological model. Statements repeated in all the texts examined confirm that this is so: statements that revolts of peasants and slaves gradually contributed to the downfall of the Egyptian state. The roots of such an ideological model are easily traced to Marxism. But, because of the interpretations, modifications, and adaptations to which the original ideas have been exposed, for various reasons and depending on the various adherants or users,11 their offshoots found in Serbian schoolbooks from the period from 1992 to 2000 can be described only as ‘vulgar Marxism’. Should we see this as a kind of leftover from previous times, forgotten in the decade in which the attitude to national history was a more important issue? Or, did the politicians ruling FR Yugoslavia - officially a society with equal rights for all its citizens - have some motive for perpetuating such an ideological picture? The final answer will be given by analysts of the period. Still, I dare suggest one. One of the patterns the Miloš evic regime kept alive in its propaganda is the idea that socialist society is the best stage of human social organisation yet reached. To support the idea, the simplified explanation of social evolution in the form ‘canonized’ in the Soviet union had to be retained.12 The purpose of this is clear and I believe that it is not necessary to elaborate upon it here. The ancient Egypt of the schoolbooks is in a sense a victim of politics.

The efficient improvement of history teaching cannot be carried out in haste, or partially. Since the beginning of the nineties, the representation of national history in schoolbooks, both for elementary and secondary schools, has been revised. Under this scrutiny, it proves to be a somewhat confusing mixture of old and new approaches, with a heavy burden of ideology, current politics, stereotypes, prejudice, and religious intolerance - mirroring the state of Serbian society.13 Although nowadays school teaching programs are not, by far, the only source of information influencing the views of the younger generations, their impact is not to be underestimated.

An objective approach to the history of one’s own nation is often impeded by emotions. Emotionally ‘neutral’ subjects, such as those of early societies and civilisations, seem to be more suitable for developing critical skills, rational thinking, and learning to understand and accept ‘others’ - to mention some of the aims not previously prominent in history teaching. The skills and attitudes developed in such case-studies can contribute to a more balanced approach to national history, already in the course of elementary and secondary education. I conclude by stressing that an additional reason making ancient Egypt a very suitable subject in history teaching is the popularity it enjoys. Schools are certainly an important field where Egyptology can prove its ‘social relevance’.14 How successful this will be will primarily depend upon the nature of the concept underlying future schoolbooks. The concept should take into account the experience of other countries, correspond with specific local demands, and be consistently carried out. Further - to mention only some of the other prerequisites - the image and role of Egypt in education will depend on the readiness of historians to embrace co-operation with Egyptologists, on the teaching methods chosen, on appropriate choice of topics and of information, and on using up-to-date results according to the standards of both Egyptology and related disciplines. However small the number of Egyptologist in Serbia may be in the future, one of their tasks should be taking part in creating and evaluating history-teaching programs, preparing the necessary teaching and studying material, and, whenever necessary, providing historians and other specialists involved with access to the potentially relevant results of Egyptological research. Only in this manner can we expect to see in schoolbooks a representation of ancient Egypt founded upon contemporary Egyptology.

The Place of Egyptology at Belgrade University

Although the art and architecture of Egypt are to a certain extent present in courses for the students of architecture and of art, it can be stated that the subject of ancient Egypt in Serbia and Montenegro is represented only in the programme of studies of two departments of the Faculty of Philosophy at Belgrade University: the Department of Archaeology and the Department of History. The lectures are included in the framework of courses on the Archaeology of the Near East and the History of the Ancient East respectively. This means that Egyptology cannot be studied as a main subject, due to the current conception of undergraduate studies for both archaeology and history. This scheme has remained virtually unchanged for decades. In the case of the Department of Archaeology, it is influenced by the fact that a considerable number, if not a majority, of archaeologists are employed in small museums throughout the country. Usually being the only archaeologists among the staff of local museums, these curators are supposed to supervise competently all archaeological field work undertaken by their museums, covering sites ranging from prehistoric to late mediaeval. For this reason, undergraduate studies include obligatory courses in prehistory, classical, and mediaeval archaeology, archaeology of the Near East, etc.15 Although some changes aiming at greater specialisation during undergraduate studies have been made in the course of time, only since 1997 have statutory changes envisaged specialisation in the final year of studies, thus introducing additional courses, according to the chosen subject for the final-year research paper and examination. Nevertheless, within Belgrade University, postgraduate studies and Ph.D. research remain the main forum for further specialisation for students of archaeology, including those choosing the subject of Egyptology.

In the Department of Archaeology, lectures on the Archaeology of the Near East have been given since 1955 and the Chair of the Archaeology of the Near East was founded in 1968. Conceiving the Archaeology of the Near East chiefly as one of the means of setting the main subject of studies, the archaeology of the Balkans, in a broader context, the Department of Archaeology has been interested in satisfying these demands through teaching, but has not interfered in the research interests of the lecturers in post. Thus the research areas of the staff involved in the Archaeology of the Near East in the last 45 years have covered different subjects, regions, and periods.16 Still, since the beginning of the eighties, the professional interests of the teaching staff have concentrated on one geographical area, ancient Egypt, but the circumstances have been such that this has not led to the establishment of an Egyptological research unit.

Nowadays, the programme for the Archaeology of the Near East, covering the prehistoric and historical periods of the area, lasts six semesters. Lectures and exercises on Egypt amount to two-thirds of the time designated for the historical period. It is basically an introduction to the civilisation of ancient Egypt.

For their final-exam, students can choose to write their paper on a subject concerning ancient Egypt. Beginning with the academic year 2000/2001, students choosing the Archaeology of the Near East for their final exam are obliged to take three additional courses in the last two terms of their studies. Two of the courses are obligatory (Cultural History of Ancient Egypt, and Biblical Archaeology). The third one can be chosen according to the period with which the student’s final paper is concerned (An Introduction to Middle Egyptian, Methodology of Archaeological Research - advanced course- or Ethnoarchaeology). Having in mind the areas of research of the lecturers, the publications available in Belgrade (privately owned or in libraries), and limited access to the resources of foreign libraries, the students are not encouraged to write papers on subjects other than the historical period of ancient Egypt or the prehistory of Palestine and Egypt.

Although Egyptology ranks very high on the list of the motives for studying archaeology among the students in their first two terms, at the end of their studies, judging by the number of final examinations taken in Archaeology of the Near East (an average of one per year), the situation is reversed. The reasons are multiple: (a) a developing interest in the archaeology of the Balkans through attaining a better overview of the fields in the course of their studies, taking part in archaeological excavations in the country, easier access to the relevant publications, etc.; (b) lack of possibilities to take part in archaeological excavations in the Near East; (c) lack of the possibility of studying the original monuments in the Yugoslav museums (and, if this is possible, it is extremely limited by the small range of the classes of objects); (d) data resources in terms of library holdings on the subject of the ancient Near East are insufficient and thus research (whatever level is in question) depends largely on personal means and perseverance; and last but not least; (e) the fact that besides the two previously mentioned departments no other institution in Serbia or Montenegro has Egyptology included in its research activities: i.e. no other employment possibilities exist for prospective specialists. Consequently, though theoretically possible, an MA and Ph.D. degree in Archaeology of the Near East (meaning also Egyptology) are only rarely chosen. The carrying out of research at these levels is inconceivable without longer or shorter stays in some foreign research centre/library and the friendly help of colleagues from other countries.

The effects of the isolation of the country in the nineties, which also included some forms of academic co-operation, are yet to be evaluated in the area of higher education. Unfortunately, the financial situation in the country, never favourable, has so far deteriorated in the last decade, that no improvement of the status of Egyptology can be expected in the near future. Further, it will largely depend on the personal commitment, and, I would like to stress, enthusiasm of individuals.

Egyptology in Higher Education Programs outside Belgrade University

The programs of studies and teaching methods at a large state university such as the Belgrade one17 can only be subject to long-term changes. Till the end of the eighties, the changes - adaptation to modern standards, development of new curricula, interdisciplinary co-operation etc. - were not officially discouraged, but were rarely and selectively supported. Still, the University had relative autonomy, keeping a solid, partly high level of education. In order to gain control over universities whose staff and students had a prominent role in all protests against the regime, the limitations of autonomy of universities imposed by Serbian government were followed by the University Act in 1998, completely depriving universities of their autonomy. The growing pressure on the opponents of the Act among the teaching staff, including expulsions from the University, led a number of specialists from different fields to found the Alternative Academic Educational Network (AAEN)18 in 1998. Though the immediate trigger was the restrictive University Law and the necessity of establishing a framework for free teaching and research for the staff and students of the university, the raison d’etre of AAEN is not that of a temporary shelter. The objective is to create a postgraduate school, offering programs not existing in the curricula of the state universities, coupled with high educational standards and modern teaching methods. The Network being open to and even favouring an interdisciplinary approach in its programs, the lectures on several topics concerning ancient Egypt were included in the courses of AAEN. The resulting experience confirms that Egyptology, besides the role already defined at Belgrade university, can obtain a new one in the interdisciplinary curricula of AAEN.



  1. L. Meskell, Electronic Egypt: the shape of archaeological knowledge on the Net, Antiquity 71 (1997) 1073-76. Publications concerning ancient Egypt, case of Yugoslavia: V. Vasiljeviæ , Iskrivljena slika starog Egipta, The Journal of the Serbian Archaeological Society 8 (1992) 159-163.
  2. I-A: B. Drašković, I. Makek, Istorija za 5. razred osnovne škole, Zavod za udž benike i nastavna sredstva, 4. izdanje, Beograd, Zavod za izdavanje udž benika Novi Sad, 1992 (on Egypt itself : pp. 40-43; in introduction on Ancient History and general text on the culture of ancient Orient: pp. 34-36, 44-52). I-B: Lazar Rakić, Istorija za 5. razred osnovne škole, 7. izdanje, Zavod za udž benike i nastavna sredstva, Beograd 1999 (on Egypt itself: 29-34; an introduction on Ancient History anda general account of the culture ofthe ancient Orient: pp. 28-29, 40-50).
  3. II-A: N.Gaćeša, N. Bojović, R. Š padijer, D. Dinić-Knežević, R. Koljenšić, Istorija za I razred gimnazije svih smerova, 7. izdanje, Zavod za udžbenike i nastavna sredstva, Beograd 1999 (section 'Society and States of Ancient East', pp. 22-38)
  4. Besides Egypt, there are sections on Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Palestine, Persia, India, China.
  5. II-A, p. 31.
  6. II-A, p. 33.
  7. II-B: Milutin Peroviæ , Bogdan Smiljeviæ , Istorija za I razred è etvorogodiš njih struè nih š kola, 13. izdanje, Zavod za udž benike i nastavna sredstva, Beograd 2000 (section "Antiquity": pp. 16-48).
  8. R. Klemm, Altägypten im deutschen Schulbuch, GM 34 (1979) 13-102.
  9. D. Stojanović, Udžbenici istorije kao ogledalo vremena, in: Uvod u mirovne studije, ed. by D. Popadić, Beograd 2000, 93-122; Ivan Čolović, Figure rata, in: Uvod u mirovne studije, 83-91.
  10. Example I-A: In section on Egyptian land, history and society (3 pages, including illustrations, i.e. pp. 34-6, 40-2), the words slaves, slavery, society (state) of slaveowners are found 14 times. On the same pages are mentioned only one historical event (Unification), one pharaoh by his name (Menes), one town (Memphis). Nile is mentioned four times. Example II-A: Section on Egyptian history and society (2 pages, with illustrations: pp. 22-24) words slaves, slavery, (society or state of) slaveowners are found 10 times; beside Unification, Hyksos, Assyrian, Persian invasion, the conquest of Alexander are mentioned, but no name of a pharaoh or Egyptian town. These examples do not include the sections on culture (I-A; II-A), but also not the one on the "Characteristics of societies and states of ancient Orient" (II-A).
  11. See: B.G.Trigger, Sociocultural Evolution: calculation and contingency, 1998, 89-95.
  12. Trigger, op.cit., 93f.
  13. Stojanovic , op. cit.
  14. See J. Horn, Ä gyptologie als Wissenschaft in der Gesellschaft, GM 1 (1972) 42-48, esp. 45, 47, and the following discussion: H.-J. Feucht, in: GM 3 (1972) 56; E. Otto, in: GM 3 (1972) 57-59; K. Preuss, in: GM 76 (1984) 64-69.
  15. A similar statement can be made on the concept of the study of history, though that concept stems from somewhat different reasons.
  16. The research and teaching of the first lecturer Professor Duš an Glumac concerned mainly the grammar of Hebrew language, Old Testament and Biblical history and archaeology. Professor Vidosava Nedomaè ki, the Head of the Chair from 1971 to 1983, published two textbooks (for undergraduate students) on Mesopotamia, thus adding to the her research on Jewish monuments and history. Prof. Sava P. Tutundž iæ , Head of the Chair from 1983 to 1994, directed his research to the relationships between Egypt and Palestine in prehistory, subject further pursued by Assistant-lecturer Branislav Andjelkoviæ . Assistant Professor Vera Vasiljeviæ , Head of the Chair since 1997, is researching in decoration of Egyptian private tombs, especially its function and meaning.
  17. At the Department of History: the subjects of the research of Miroslava Paniæ -Š torh, Assistant Professor (Chair for Ancient History) are New Kingdom history and Egypt inthe works of the ancient Greek historians.

  18. Approximately 65.000 students and c. 7000 teaching and research stuff; 30 faculties and 8 research institutes.
  19. Consisting at first of 15, now of 17 member-organisations (NGOs).


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