By Rossella Lorenzi
The oldest Egyptian leather manuscript has been found in the shelves
of the Egyptian museum in Cairo, where it was stored and forgotten for
more than 70 years.
Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Middle Kingdom
(2300-2000 B.C.), the roll measures about 2.5 meters(8.2 feet) and is
filled with texts and colorful drawings of the finest quality.
“Taking into account that it was written on both sides, we have
more than 5 meters (16.4 feet) of texts and drawings, making this the
longest leather roll from ancient Egypt,” Wael Sherbiny, the
Belgium-based independent scholar who made the finding, told Discovery
The first Egyptian to obtain his PhD in Egyptology in 2008 from the
Leuven University in Belgium, Sherbiny specializes in the ancient
Egyptian religious texts and is preparing the full publication of the
unique leather roll.
He announced the finding at the recent International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence.
Nothing is known about the manuscript’s origins. The French
Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo bought it from a local
antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. Later it was donated to the
Cairo Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the
“Since then it was stored in the museum and fell completely into oblivion,” Sherbiny said.
Basically a portable religious manuscript, the more than
4,000-year-old roll, contains depictions of divine and supernatural
beings which predate the famous drawings found in the Book of the Dead
manuscripts and the so-called Netherworld Books from the New Kingdom
onwards (1550 B.C. onwards).
Religious spells, formulated in the first person singular, also abound there.
“They were likely recited by a priest,” Sherbiny said.
It is known that priests used to carry leather rolls to reference while reciting sacred texts during religious rituals.
Only six other portable manuscripts have survived from ancient Egypt
and could possibly share a close date with the Cairo leather roll. All
of them are papyri.
“Leather was considered a very precious writing material in
ancient Egypt. It was the principal writing medium to record holy texts
and great historic events as it was more practical than papyrus due to
its flexibility and durability,” Sherbiny said.
Such prestigious leather rolls, kept in the libraries and
archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper
copies were reproduced on papyrus. While papyri were preserved by
Egypt’s dry climate, leather objects quickly perished.
The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into
very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them all
The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the
so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition
containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.
This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the
floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the
necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.
“Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography
than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,” Sherbiny
According to the scholar, the roll shows that parts of this
composition were already known before their appearance on the Hermopolis
“It suggests that several segments of the composition were
probably not the creation of Hermopolitan theologians, but had rather
longer history of transmission before they were chosen to be used as
coffin decorations,” Sherbiny said.
He noted the leather roll also features religious drawings
which had not been seen in coffins nor in any other monument until now.
“It shows that there was a large body of both religious
iconography and texts, but unfortunately they did not reach us,”